The Mysteries of Minimalism

Minimalist Music.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.

Drawing by minimalist artist Agnes Martin
Drawing by minimalist artist Agnes Martin

Originally, that was going to be the whole post.

Then I thought I could elaborate with something like this:

Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap. Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap. Repetitive New-Age Crap repetitive New-Age crap repetitive new-agecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecrap ………

I didn’t care for Minimalist Music, I didn’t like the recordings of the composers that were lumped together as minimalists and I didn’t understand why they were so popular.

Here is an example of the kind of thing I am talking about.

Philip Glass Glassworks : Opening

Its all just consonant mush.  No form, no themes.  No beginning, middle and end.  As far as I’m concerned it could end in the middle of the track, or could go on for ten more minutes.  It doesn’t seem to make any difference.  I sincerely believe that understanding something of the forms that classical music contains can give a deeper meaning to the listener.  Theme and variations form,  Sonata form, or rondo form:  these are all conventions that help the listener follow where they are in a piece.  Even if a piece has some original formal structure, repeated listening helps one uncover that structure and leads to a deeper understanding of the work.  This minimalist stuff has none of that, it’s just repetitive new-age crap.  Or so I thought.

Then I read something that helped me unlock some understanding of minimalism.  The music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass was very early on referred to as the  New York Hypnotic School.   This gave me the clue that this stuff was MEANT to be formless.  On the About page of this blog I said something about taking each piece of music on its own terms and not asking it to be something it wasn’t trying to be.  That is exactly the mistake I was making with the Philip Glass piece above.   It is supposed to sound formless, without a beginning or end.  It is hypnotic, trance like music.  You are dropped into the middle of something infinite and flowing.  The rhythms shift and come in and out of phase as some musical elements are brought to the foreground and  others fade into the background.  The listener is supposed to lose their place as their attention wanders from bit to bit.

You can’t listen to this music in the car, or while doing something else.  It has to be in a live performance, or at least a recording playing in a quiet room with nothing else going on.  It is meant to be a formless, meditative experience.  As a matter of taste, one can still like or dislike this kind of music.  My point is that it has to be judged a success or failure as a piece based on how well it achieves the meditation that it was trying to create.  You shouldn’t fault it for not being a minuet, or a twelve bar blues, or not having the structure of a sonata.  It was never trying to be that.

John Adams is another composer that is associated with minimalism. (It is good to note that someone else came up with the name minimalism, not the composers.) One of his pieces I really, really like is John’s Book of Alleged Dances, for string quartet and recording of prepared piano.  I don’t know if it is the best example of minimalism.  It is definitely a work I admire from a composer ACCUSED of minimalism.  I hope you enjoy it too.

– Rich


3 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Minimalism

Add yours

  1. Oh well done you for the bravery of challenging yourself with this.

    I love this music precisely because it says PAY ATTENTION. Its music as meditation, and the whole point about meditation is not to drift off but to stay present and awake.

    Glass has of course different ways of working with this, some of which work brilliantly – Satyagraha is to my eyes and ears, wondrous.

    My personal favourite is Arvo Part, where silence is as profound as the arising of music

    I went to a concert last week where the composers were Glass, Part and Adams. Having loved Glass’s music for some years, i was quite surprised that his piece was the one which grabbed and held me least. It was a short orchestral piece I didn’t know, and full of his trademark ‘shimmer’ but the Part Lamentate for orchestra and piano and Adams (who took me longer to surrender to than the much more heavily ‘romanitc’ minimalism of Glass) was the standout Harmonielehre. The third movement of that he ‘did a Glass shimmer’ that almost outGlassed Glass. I like what he does with the textures and tones of rhythm, in some sort of very muscular way – hard to sit still with this peice – and the one you have used, it seems to demand the body to move with the music

    1. Thank you for looking at my blog and some of the posts. Most of the videos I include are from YouTube, and occasionally some of the content gets removed over time. Thank you for letting me know, I have updated the links to versions of the same pieces that should play now (as of 3/2016)


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